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Why Black History Month?
Conservative workmates and friends always asked me why Black folks insist on Balkanizing themselves with the term African American. Are we not all just Americans?
I grew up in public schools during the 1960’s and early 1970’s with little or no instruction on African American contributions to American life. I always seem to recall that George Washington cut down the cherry tree and that the nation was blessed by the political genius of the Founding Fathers. Who could possibly not have learned about the inventor, Thomas Edison, or simply did not pay attention and ignored Henry Ford’s concepts of mass production changing the way everything was manufactured. How about the scientific achievement of everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Jonas Salk?
I learned that the conquest of Native American tribes across the North American continent was a good and necessary thing. I have been taught, reinforced by John Wayne in the cinema, that the siege of the Alamo was the saga of a handful of men that stood bravely, fought and died to a man against overwhelming numbers of Santa Ana’s army, rather than the actual fact that they did not die in battle to the last man but were forced to surrender and later executed. For you younger ones, “The Alamo” (1960) was a sprawling epic with an absolutely beautiful musical score, even if the historical fact as depicted was questionable.
Only in the ethnic study courses and revisionist cinema of the late 60’s and early 1970’s did I hear of these stories as told by the other side. These ‘sons of Texas’ were trespassers and invaders from a foreign land. It is true that the victors always write the history to their advantage. I never heard anything about Frederick Douglass, Charles Drew, Benjamin Banneker and countless other men and women of color who also had a part in the American story.
Most of this information I was not privileged to learn until I took ethnic studies classes at the University level. When I heard about Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas McArthur and their superb generalship during WWII, why did I not hear about the Tuskegee Airman, the all African American aviation fighting squadron that was the only unit that never lost an American bomber to enemy attack while escorting them to bombing targets in Europe? The achievement was stunning, why did I not hear about it? I recommend that you rent the film entitled “The Tuskegee Airman”; it is a most stirring film indeed.
Also, what about the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry (all African-American) who during the Civil War distinguished itself with its courage under fire? When you read about this account, see the film ‘Glory’, an excellent account of the story of this regiment. I could go on and on, but I won’t belabor the point. It appears that the achievements of men of color were deliberately not included in the American story. I was reasonably self-aware while growing up and had a passion for history, why did I hear so little. How many other men of color made contributions that were not included in school texts books? So to provide a thoughtful answer to the Conservative, my point is that no one can truly feel a part of the team if they are relegated to sit on the benches all of the time
Why a 'White' History Month is not Needed
Who does not know your story; it is an integral part of this culture. We are indoctrinated with it both consciously and subconsciously from birth. Everything from the billboard signs on the road to the flickering images on the television screen, we are educated as to who it was that did everything and how, relative to all this, we, as a people, just fell from the sky. I can’t board a plane without thinking about the achievement of the brothers at Kitty Hawk. We are reminded of your achievements and accomplishments on a daily basis and they are most noteworthy.
Consequently, the achievements and accomplishments of people of other non-WASP groups need to be explicitly included or it will be ignored. That is not good for our young people looking for positive examples to emulate. They need to know that there are; in fact, people who look like them that have defied the odds and have proven themselves to be extraordinary people. I can remember during the dawn of my consciousness, being called into the family living room to see an African American celebrity on television. We just did not come when called, but almost broke our necks trying to see this celebrity of color before he or she went away. At the time, we must have been considered an invisible people, only to be seen under very specific and controlled circumstances.
We had nothing on television comparable to Ozzie and Harriet until the Huxtables in the 1980’s. Yes, we have come a long way. I can barely remember when Nat King Cole had his variety show. He was such an incredible talent that he was able to get his own show, even though he had difficulty getting sponsored because he was a man of color. This was around 1958. I remember the Judy Garland Show and the occasional African American celebrity that would appear. We would watch the ‘good’ variety shows as they tended to have more celebrities of color appearing as guests. It is amazing how many variety shows there were and how much television and its audience has changed over the years. But, that is a discussion for another article. At this time, we all rushed to see a positive reflection of ourselves before the national media.
I couldn’t believe that the networks balked at “Julia”, the story of this widowed African-American nurse with her son. This appeared on NBC in 1966. I could not believe that the network executives insisted that she not have a mate as it might have offended white audiences. Seemed preposterous to me, why was this true? A strong, nuclear, African-American family unit was a threat? What other unspoken reality was being hidden from most of us, that subtlety kept us in the shadows of American life? It is absolutely amazing what you learn when you do a little digging, isn’t it?
It is because of the cultural, political and economic hegemony of the WASP that they don’t need their own commemorative month as they already have everyday of the year. Maybe, it is time to allow others outside the mainstream to tell their stories, as well, and to extol their heroes and learn how they, too, are a part of the American tapestry. That is what this is all about for not just African-Americans but other large ethnic groups and in regards to ‘herstory’, as well.
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